November 19, 2010


T.S. Eliot and the Demise of the Literary Culture (Joseph Epstein, November 2010, Commentary)

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis in 1888, the son of a successful manufacturer of bricks and the scion of many illustrious Eliots of Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts. His grandfather founded Washington University in St. Louis; Charles William Eliot, a cousin, was president of Harvard when Eliot was an undergraduate there. The Eliot family was centered (anchored might be more precise) in New England, where it spent its summers, and Tom later came to think himself a New Englander, though not so thoroughly as he would one day consider himself English.

Part of what makes Eliot’s literary career so impressive is that he achieved all he did, in effect, in nationality drag. He willed himself into an Englishman, which technically he became only in the year 1927, when he acquired British citizenship. After attending one of Eliot’s readings in New York in 1933, the critic Edmund Wilson wrote to the novelist John Dos Passos: “He is an actor and really put on a better show than Shaw. . . . He gives you the creeps a little at first because he is such a completely artificial, or, rather, self-invented character . . . but he has done such a perfect job with himself that you end up admiring him.”

Eliot wrote of Henry James, in subtle ways his literary model, that “it is the final perfection, the consummation of an American to become, not an Englishman, but a European—something which no born European, no person of any European nationality, can become.” James had become, as Eliot also put it, a European but of no known country, while Eliot, with his bowler hat and rolled umbrella and what Virginia Woolf called “his four-piece suits,” turned himself into something resembling the caricature of an Englishman.

This most politically conservative of writers made two radical decisions when young that drastically changed the course of his life. On a traveling fellowship to Europe from the Harvard philosophy department, where he was completing work on a doctorate on the Idealist thinker F.H. Bradley, Eliot determined no longer to live in America or as an American but instead to settle in England. And not long after, in 1914, he married an attractive young woman named Vivien Haigh-Wood, who, most inconveniently, happened to be insane.

Both decisions were made against the wishes of his strong-minded parents. Ezra Pound offered to write a letter to Eliot’s father explaining the importance of his remaining in England. Eliot had met Pound in 1914; Pound was only three years older than Eliot but had already made himself the impresario of the literary avant-garde and was a generous promoter of other people’s talents. When he read Eliot’s early poetry, he knew he had come upon a talent worth promoting. He arranged to have Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine publish “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”; he placed other early poems in WyndhamLewis’s Blast and Alfred Kreymborg’s Others. Propelled by Pound’s powerful promotional engine, T.S. Eliot’scareer as a poet was off with a great whoosh.

In his letter to Eliot’s father, Pound insisted that London was the place, certainly a much better place than anywhere in America, for his son to make his reputation as a poet. He was correct about that, even if the senior Eliot hadn’t the least interest in Tom’s becoming one. The prestige of the avant-garde was much less in America in those years than it was in England and on the Continent. In literature, America meant provincialism; London, the great world.

Some surmise that Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood because, having had sex with her, he felt a strong sense of obligation. Others that it was his way of putting his foot in the river of life, for Eliot’s first published poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and much else he wrote in his early years, is about the buried life, or the fear of living—“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”—another way in which he resembled Henry James.

In “Stuff,” one of the American writer Mary Gaitskill’s short stories, a character says, “Isn’t Eliot that turd who made his wife think she was crazy?” Nearly the reverse was the case: the marriage came close to driving Eliot, a man with a highly delicate nervous organization, mad himself. Vivien claimed that her husband never fully opened up to her, never gave her the affectionate attention she required. This may be partially true—in the emotional realm, Eliot was far from effulgent—but in all likelihood no one else could have done so either. Eliot cannot be accused of being undutiful to her. Most of his earnings went into paying the bills for the quackish physicians then interested in mental illness or for moving his wife into and out of the countryside in hopes of reviving her health. Virginia Woolf described Vivien as “a bag of ferrets” around Eliot’s neck. In a letter to the American critic Paul Elmer More, Eliot described his marriage as resembling a bad Dostoyevsky novel. In 1938, Vivien Eliot was committed to a mental asylum, where she died nine years later, at the age of 58.

The marriage was the signature event of Eliot’s life. His failure even mildly to assuage his wife’s condition and then his separating himself from her after 13 years of a hellish life together left him in despair and on the brink of emotional collapse. The separation also left him with a relentlessly throbbing bad conscience and was a key factor in his conversion to High Anglicanism. He had grown up in St. Louis under the extreme liberal wing of Unitarianism, but his family’s earlier religious tradition was Calvinist. And Calvinist, the Puritanical division, T.S. Eliot always seemed. Calvinist guilt, if Eliot’s be an example, makes quotidian Jewish guilt seem like puff pastry.

Eliot’s conversion was an event that gave order and meaning to his life and coherence to his thought. Peter Ackroyd, another of Eliot’s biographers, writes: “He explained that Christianity reconciled him to human existence, which otherwise seemed empty and distasteful.” Eliot never attempted to win other converts and, as Ackroyd again notes, “rarely asserted the positive merits of his faith, but characteristically exposed the flaws and follies in other competing ideologies.” [...]

The Letters of T. S. Eliot are now up to only 1925 and end before Eliot’s career as a great man was fully established. (At this rate of publication, there is an excellent chance that no one reading this essay will live long enough to see the entire collection of Eliot’s letters in print.) The first volume chronicled Eliot’s youth and Harvard years, his decamping to England and early years there. This second volume has chiefly to do with his struggles with his wife’s mental illness and his editorship of the Criterion, the intellectual magazine he founded in 1922.

Eliot worked on the Criterion at night, after his full day at the bank, most of the time with no secretarial help and without salary. (Vivien, it must be said, aided him on the magazine during her sane stretches.) The journal never had a circulation of more than 1,000. Yet it had the highest repute and even today is part of the mythos of literary modernism. The Criterion was highbrow but not all that avant-garde. Conservative in its tendency, Eliot never allowed it to be hostage to any party. “My belief is that,” Eliot wrote to a contributor, “if one has principles at all, they will have their consequences in both literature and politics, they will apply to both.” He would later describe his own positions as “Anglo-Catholic in religion, classicist in literature, and royalist in politics.”

The Critic as Radical : T.S. Eliot sought the still point of the turning world. (George Scialabba, The American Conservative)

At the root of this condemnation of modernity lay the conviction of Original Sin. Eliot believed that most people have very little intelligence or character. Without firm guidance from those who have more of both, the majority is bound to reason and behave badly. Eliot made this point frequently: sometimes gently, as in the well-known line from “Burnt Norton”: “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” Sometimes harshly, as in “The Function of Criticism,” where he derided those in whom democratic reformers place their hopes as a rabble who “ride ten in a compartment to a football match at Swansea, listening to the inner voice, which breathes the eternal message of vanity, fear, and lust.”

The obtuseness and unruliness of humanity in the mass meant that order, the prime requisite of social health, could only be secured by subordination to authority, both religious and political. “For the great mass of humanity … their capacity for thinking about the objects of their faith is small”—hence the need for an authoritative church rather than an illusory Inner Voice. Likewise, “in a healthily stratified society, public affairs would be a responsibility not equally borne”—hence the need for a hereditary governing class. Underlying these social hierarchies is a hierarchy of values. “Liberty is good, but more important is order, and the maintenance of order justifies any means.”

Order, long preserved, produces tradition—“all the actions, habits, and customs,” from the most significant to the most conventional, that “represent the blood kinship of ‘the same people living in the same place’.” Eliot’s best-known discussions of tradition are found in his literary essays: “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “The Metaphysical Poets,” and others.

His poetry was, of course, revolutionary as well as conservative, and his criticism explains this apparent paradox. Artistic originality emerges only after a lengthy assimilation of many traditions. The artist surrenders his individuality, and it is returned to him enriched. The tradition too is enriched. “The whole existing order” is “if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. … The past [is] altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 19, 2010 6:12 AM
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